What am I up to now?

October 2, 2023

August, 2023


  1. Updates
  2. Reading
  3. Music
  4. Sport


I started July in Almaty, and I’m finishing the month in Bonn.A friend from uni, IvG, is putting me up for a couple of nights. It’s the first time we’ve caught up in person since 2017, and our last chance for a while — she’s off to Dhaka for a two-year tour in October, where I’d love to visit if I ever find the time. Also she’s the 17th ranked sabreist in Germany? That’s pretty cool. In between was a fun week in Astana, and three weeks in Oxford. Tomorrow, I’ll head south to Geneva. This is not as whirlwind as last summer, but it’s enough to sate the threat of stagnancy which looms all around the PhD.

I’ll be in Geneva for a few weeks as a mentor to CHERI fellows, as well as catching up with friends and colleagues in the area. I’m very grateful to CHERI for inviting me back after last year’s debacle,I was bedridden with monkeypox for most of the week, and CHERI’s organizers, Ishana and Ivan, to whom I’m forever grateful, spent more time taking care of me than I provided mentorship to their fellows. tho my central research questions are much less existential than they were a year ago.

While with CHERI, I’m going to be focusing on one of my more longtermist research projects. Many of you have heard me talk about monasteries recently — I mostly dropped this project during the academic year, and would love to make progress on it again. I also hope to make progress on a more empirical project on autonomous weapons.

Finally, in upcoming research+travel, I’m hoping to be in The Gambia late in September for the project (with Victor Pouliquen) on property taxes and public good provision. If anyone reading this has any locally-relevant advice or connections, let me know!! Or just stories. MP and MLThe other one. No, the other other one. have already been tremendously helpful.

Lots of excitement over the past month. An observatory on the Assy Plauteu, my parents visiting Oxford and meeting all of my friends in town, the central European trip.An Italian friend, AG, has the strong opinion that Eastern Europe is everything east of Rome, making the due south Bonn -> Geneva run pretty close to a direct Central European trip. But the absolute highlight was the opening of the new Sainsbury’s Local on the corner of Walton and Cranham streets last Thursday, just a block from my house. Previously, JerichoJericho is a fascinating neighborhood, I love living here. It’s the inspiration for the Beersheba neighborhood of Christminster in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. A few houses down from mine, renovation just finished on what is now my favorite house in Oxford. It was built in 1881 as a Weslyan chapel, and despite being deconsecrated in the 1920s, maintains its gorgeous ugly-duckling pediment among the more traditional gothic rowhouses alongside. Since then, the chapel was an architectural studio, Oxford’s primary ice cream factory, a garage, and a physics lab. Now it’s a residential house and I’m fruitlessly jealous. had only two shops, two Co-ops located 150 meters from each other on Walton Street.The placement of these two same-brand shops has puzzled me. One 2011 newspaper article says Co-op opened their second shop on the road to prevent a Tescos from moving in, which I suppose is believable. The shop opened at 7am, and MLThe first one. and I woke up at 6:15 to get in line.

Oddly enough, the line was one person. I guess the grand opening of a local shop isn’t as exciting to everyone else as it is to us. I’m still puzzled by our predecessor — he was about my age, maybe a bit younger, in running shorts and a gym top (it was maybe 50 degrees), and he looked stoically, miserably, bored.

But! four minutes before opening, a noticeably blue BMW gently rides up onto the sidewalk, askew and slightly in a crosswalk. Just in time, an elderly woman in a bright pink dress and matching wide-brimmed hat (set for the Ascot, I suppose) walks past me, Morgan, and the grumpy runner, and plants both palms on the still-locked automatic door. She does not move until 7am, when the manager, holding a bottle of champagne, unlocks the door and allows us inside. The old lady doesn’t have any sense of ceremony, and beelines for the tabloid rack, but the manager wouldn’t have given ol’ BMW the champagne anyway. Instead, she carries it over to our rival, the lonely runner, who had beaten us all. I was hoping she would, like an F1 pit crew member, shake the bottle, pop the cork, and spray the victorious shopper with glory and bubbly wine. We were out of luck. She handed it over soberly, more like a Spanish admiral surrendering their sword to Lord Nelson than a local mayor handing an oversized check to a lottery winner.

And that was that. The runner, with prize in hand, had no interest in actually shopping — he immediately turned around and walked out. Ms. BMW was still buried in The Sun. There is an upside — tho she was the first one through the door, and the runner was the first in line, we were the first customers to purchase anything at our new Sainsbury’s Local. We bought four Gala apples and a pack of triple chocolate cookies. I consider that true victory.

My August will, hopefully, live up to this experience. I love you all, and can’t wait to see you soon.


My post last month skipped most of the reading I’d done — I didn’t bring my laptop, so it was written on my phone. There are a few books relevant to that trip I wanted to write about.

The most interesting and useful book I read prior to the trip was Adeeb Khalid’s Central Asia. The book is focused on how imperial conquests integrated Central Asia into global exchanges of goods and ideas. The Western sense of the region originates in the Silk Road era, as is most tourism; Khalid’s analysis centers on Chinese and Russian imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries. The book excels in comparisons of the management by the Qing and Tsarist empires, and later by Soviet and Chinese Communist regimes.

The most widely recommended Uzbek novel is Hamid Ismailov’s The Devils’ Dance. The novel spans both of these periods — the central character, the historical Uzbek novelist Abdulla Qodiriy, is arrested, interrogated, and executed by the Soviet police, a story interspersed with Ismailov’s version of Qodiriy’s last unpublished novel, about a late 19th century poet in the Bukhara Khanate. Ismailov himself completes a triptych of Uzbek history — he was suppressed by Karimov in the early 90s, and his works are still banned in Uzbekistan.

Not to sell Devils’ Dance short as “merely interesting” — the writing is also excellent. I find myself skipping most poetry in novels I read,I’m pushing through Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate, his early novel-in-verse. I can either focus on the story — which is fascinating — or the poetry — which is captivating — but often lose track of the other. Shakespeare elides this entirely by being thoroughly derivative in his stories. but Ismailov’s Persian couplets interspersed throughout are gorgeous! The translation is FitzGeraldian.

I expected Astana to be relatively less interesting than the previous cities we spent time in. It’s a young city, as these things go, mostly relevant only because Nazarbayev relocated the capital there from Almaty in the late 90s.After his resignation in 2019, the city was renamed Nur-Sultan, his first name. The name went back to Astana in 2022, but there are still some garbage cans and various public infrastructure with the short-lived name printed. The oldest building we saw, on a tour with a passionate architecture student,Timurtas, our guide, made an amazing animation of an amazing mural in the Soviet Youth Palace in Astana. I haven’t been able to find a high quality image of the mural itself, but it was one of the most interesting pieces of art I saw during the trip. Watch the animation here. was a log cabin from the mid-19th century, which had possibly burned down a few times. All of this is in contrast to the other Central Asian cities, which emphasized how old everything is, sometimes gracefully inflating the ages of monuments or mosques.One fun example in this category was the Chashma-Ayub Mausoleum in Bukhara, the name lightly implying Job is buried there. He is obviously not, and it’s unlikely he ever visited the region. But a great little spot, and certainly many hundreds of years old.

Astana made up for it’s lack of old buildings with interesting stories. The World Expo was held there recently, and a Death Star-shaped museum is leftover and quite interesting. There is inexplicably a life-size, Chinese-manufactured, steel model of a Buran on an overgrown plaza in the outskirts of the city. And then there was the diplomatic circuit. We stayed with a friend at the US Embassy and boy is there a lot of diplomacy to be done in Kazakhstan.

It’s in a weird place, stuck between Russia, China, and the west. Largely Russian-speaking, but at least occasionally Russian-hating. There was, and is, a gap in my understanding of the region — I don’t have any sense of Kazakhstan’s aspirations. The books didn’t help much. Khalid’s book is firmly historical; I tried a few more current affairs-y books and found them overly wrought and dramatized.Joanna Lillis’ Dark Shadows was widely recommended; this weak criticism is based mostly on that.

One book I picked up after the stay in the embassy was Satow’s Diplomatic Practice. First published in 1917 by the British Minister to Japan, it has been updated and re-published six times by later distinguished diplomats. The book evolved from a handbook for young diplomats to an authoritative, quasi-academic text on international diplomacy. I found the most recent version information dense, almost encyclopedic on arcane matters of diplomatic protocol, and full of amusingly instructive anecdotes about how things in the diplomatic world go right (or more often, wrong). While Satow was very focused on ambassadorial and consular work, the new editions delve into alternative forms of diplomacy, such as the work of NGOs and a fascinating history of secret envoys. I ended up buying an epub; if anyone has a good quality pdf I could keep on reference, that would be appreciated.

Also, I super highly recommend What Is a Dog? by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger. They focus on village dogs, those semi-feral, lion-colored canines that make up 85% of the world’s dog population, attempting to identify the “essential essence of dog.” These dogs, found in places like Vietnam, India, Africa, and Mexico, are strikingly similar and have adapted to a life of scavenging alongside humans. The Coppingers spend most of the book comparing dogs to wolves,Despite noting in the introduction that dogs should be the central category — they outnumber wolves 2,500 to 1. but are interested in wider questions of behavioural ecology and the philosophy of taxonomy. Some fun quotes:

If I drop a seventy-day-old wolf in the middle of a caribou herd, what are its chances of surviving? Just about zero. If I drop a seventy-day-old dog pup in the Mexico City dump, what are its chances of finding enough to live on? Not great—but a lot better than the wolf pup among large robust ruminants. … Most wolves starve to death. The 850 million village dogs’ pups starve to death. Most individuals of most wild species starve to death. … If humans disappeared from the face of the earth today, dogs as we recognize them would go extinct. Why couldn’t they go back to the wilderness and hunt rabbits or moose? Because wolves, coyotes, jackals, and foxes already occupy those wilderness niches, and those species already adapted to those niches would outcompete the dog. Those wild critters have the right shape and instinct, and the dog would have to evolve into something else. One niche—one species. … an older warrior was asked what the dog was supposed to guard the cattle from, and he said, “Lions!”

“Lions? A lion will eat that dog!”

“Yes,” he replied, “but we hope it will bark first.” … Our grandson has trained the school bus driver to stop so he can pick up [roadkill] carcasses in the plastic bags he carries in his pocket.

Also this month was the new Derek Parfit biography,Worth reading if you care, but not as generally interesting as the recent Ramsey or Warhol biographies. two books on Somaliland, and a collection of Geoff Dyer’s short writing. I highly recommend the last, for Dyer’s commentary on modern photography and exceptional autofiction. It also wins the award for “book which caused me to download the most new books”.


The new Zakir Hussein, Edgar Meyer, and Béla Fleck album is self-recommending, and I really loved it. Other fantastic new listens from the past week:


As Oxford undergrads disappear in the summer, the Thames changes. Fours replace eights, coaches become increasingly desperate for work, and boats spin willy-nilly, up or downstream of the designated areas. After Kazakhstan, and my first ever session in a scull, the Brasenose coach Tim suggested I sign up to row at Henley opens — just two weeks later. This was a terrible idea and I immediately agreed.

Eight sculling sessions in the next eleven days abosolutely skinned my hands, but also got me to the point of a non-embarrassing racing start. I was prepared to lose with open water, but had almost reached the point of confidence where I wouldn’t go for a swim in the Henley Reach. Unfortunately, both Tim and I were struck by an administrative delay which forbade our participation. While he called it “gutting”, and I empathized (perhaps too much…), I can’t say I’m too disappointed my sculling debut has been postponed.

Oxford University baseball also has it’s 2023-2024 schedule!

With three games in October, I’m excited to see how an understaffed Rangers get along. We’ll definitely have sell-out crowds, so book your travel and seats early.


June, 2023

May, 2023

April, 2023

March, 2023

February, 2023

December, 2022

November, 2022

October, 2022

September, 2022

August, 2022

November, 2021

October, 2021

September, 2021

July, 2021

June, 2021

May, 2021

What am I up to now? - October 2, 2023 - Joseph Levine